A tank covered in bread as part of demonstrations near Rio+20 in Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Adriane MacDonald).
A tank covered in bread as part of demonstrations near Rio+20 in Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Adriane MacDonald).

June 20th, 2012 marked the first day of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development also known as Rio+20. The conference grounds, set in picturesque Rio de Janeiro were spinning with excitement and energy. Preceding Rio+20 people were dreaming about the prospect of a globally sustainable future. The UN’s Major Groups representing Women, Local Authorities, NGOs and others were working hard to contribute to the Future We Want outcome document. Social media mediums served as platforms for robust public discourse. There was hope that the people’s voice would be heard and that state governments would commit to measurable actions. In the end the outcome document that defined Rio+20 was in many ways a disappointment.

The past forty years has seen four United Nations conferences on the topic of humans and the environment. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was the first major conference that addressed international environmental issues. This conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. Twenty years after the Stockholm Conference, leaders from around the world have been brought together every ten years by the UN to negotiate the global sustainable development path. Rio+20 was the fourth UN conference of this kind.

Sadly Rio+20 was yet another exposition of how state governments fail to listen to the public and make necessary change happen. In fact, a number of state governments were actively stymieing positive change. For instance, Canada was a major impediment in the people’s fight to end of fossil fuel subsidies. A massive campaign on Twitter, which urged leaders to end these perverse subsidies, created a lot of discussion and awareness, but did not result in any commitments. Ambitious commitments such as this represented what we were hoping to see from our governments, but did not.

The Future We Want outcome document has received a great deal of criticism. And rightly so, the document is marred with non-committal language that holds no one accountable. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the lack of new thinking. For instance, the outcome document left much to be desired in the Green Economy section, which neglects to provide a coherent definition of the term. Many say that a rehashing of definitions and well-worn commitments is not what we need.The people want action and additional commitments from governments that go beyond Agenda 21, a document written in Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit 20 years ago.

International state driven negotiations and the Future We Want document represent only one aspect of what happened at Rio+20. There were also related conferences held before, during and after Rio+20 as well as side events close to the conference grounds. It was at these related conferences and side events that the real action was taking place.

Prior to Rio+20 was the ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability’s 2012 World Congress held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. This conference, a gathering of local governments from across the globe, was a four-day exposition of extraordinary local sustainable development activities taking place around the world. ICLEI also hosted the Global Town Hall, a side event happening congruently with Rio+20. Again this event demonstrated local governments putting words into action by presenting the work they have done since the inauguration of Local Agenda 21.

Further evidence that cities, and the local governments managing them, are critical actors on the road to sustainable development is a report, Local Sustainability 2012 Showcasing Progress Case Studies published by ICLEI. This report details case studies telling local success stories of municipal sustainable development type projects. Featured in this report is Japan’s Yokohama city-wide initiative to implement a green credits exchange program and China’s Rizhao city initiative that designated $500 million to environmentally friendly urban planning.

Stories told at the World Congress, Global Town Hall and in the complementary case studies highlight the critical role that local governments play in making advances towards the implementation of sustainable development policies. All of these events and activities made for a convincing case for why local matters. So while our state leaders demonstrated their weakness and inability to make change, our local leaders contrasted them by showing their strength, innovation and ability to make real change happen. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.